The five Cervelo bikes leaning against the Dimension Data team bus at the Tour de Romandie are a sorry sight. On board, Rolf Aldag is doing his best to rally the troops, explaining to them that if they do the basics right then the race can be deemed a success. The message to the riders is simple; stick together, look after each other, and the results will follow. Given the circumstances, it's the best Aldag can hope for, although after almost four months of this it must feel like he and the rest of the team are going through the motions.
Team leader Steve Cummings has left due to illness and Nicolas Dougall missed the time cut in the uphill time trial on stage 3. The Tour de Romandie has encapsulated Dimension Data's season, with bad luck, ruled-out leaders, and the shortcomings of a young squad unable to step up leading them to just two wins this year.
However, as Aldag explains, all is not lost. The African team has a long-term vision that will set them up for 2020, with new talent central to their future. Their current leader and talisman, Mark Cavendish, will be back in action soon, and the Giro d'Italia is around the corner, providing a fresh start. Being close to the bottom of the WorldTour rankings in April will quickly be forgotten if the team can get their riders back in action.
As Aldag steps off the bus, having given his pep talk to the riders ahead of stage 4, he admits that the current situation has taken its toll. Injuries, crashes and illness has ripped through the Dimension Data team this year with all of their team leaders either on the sidelines or on the comeback trail. In a career spanning four decades, Aldag hasn't seen anything like it.
"I've not been involved in a run of injuries like this before - not in all my time in cycling. I remember the Giant-Alpecin car incident a few years ago when they were hit by a car in training, but nothing like this in terms of so many riders, with so many injuries," Aldag tells Cyclingnews.
"Cavendish is coming back but Eisel had a fall, was ill and had surgery. Dougall injured his hand, [Julien] Vermote his shoulder, [Scott] Thwaites his back, [Mekseb] Debesay his hip, Cummings is sick, Edvald [Boasson Hagen] has his surgery and Reinardt Janse van Rensburg hasn't raced since the Worlds."
Mark Cavendish exits the Abu Dhabi Tour after a crash on the opening day
One would be forgiven for throwing in the towel but Dimension Data, and Aldag in particular, would never consider raising the white flag. So, instead of just going through the motions he has instructed the riders to get the maximum out of each race. If they can't win, then the next best option is to learn.
For a team stacked with so many young riders from around the world, there can be no more important a task. Aldag doesn't use the term but what he's referring to could be described as building blocks. Bring in young talent and harness their abilities, but also ensure that they have the basic skill-set needed for racing in Europe. The results may not be visible now but in the future the hard work will pay off.
"The situation with injuries makes our life more difficult, and it leaves us doing some learning exercises for the young kids. We can't expect them to step up and give the same results as team leaders," Aldag says.
"It's clear that we don't have the same depth that a team like Sky has, where riders might think that if a leader is out then they have a chance. That's not what we have - we know that, and it would be unfair to expect otherwise.
"What we do expect is that they get the basics right, so the things you don't concentrate on if you're only focused on results and when things are going well. Here in Romandie it's as simple as riding as a team and staying together. Then, when the big guns are back, all that hard work pays off because the younger riders have improved. At the moment, though, a broken collarbone would almost be acceptable, given the tough injuries our guys have had."
Rider recruitment and the 2020 vision
Yet, part of the team's predicament does come down to recruitment. Team boss Doug Ryder has an almost-impossible task: balancing the desire to bring through African talent with the need for instant success.
The former is admirable, and a wonderful endeavour within professional cycling, but the reality is that WorldTour points are not handed out on moral grounds. No; WorldTour points are a hard-earned commodity based on nothing but results. In some cases they are bought by the highest bidding team, not bothered by age or youth development, but by the here and now.
No other team looks to Africa for talent in the same way Dimension Data do, and while Ryder has been criticized for letting some talented African riders slip through the team, they are still home to some 13 riders from the continent.
South African Louis Meintjes spearheads the team's Grand Tour ambitions
Over the winter the team re-signed Louis Meintjes for a reported 1.3 million Euros a season. That's a reasonable sum for a rider who has collected a number of top-10 results in Grand Tours, and is still under the age of 27. The South African, however, is not a prolific winner, and while the team are building around him in the hope of a Tour de France challenge in 2020, they have lost ground in other areas.
Nathan Haas was replaced by Tom-Jelte Slagter, while Omar Fraile was never truly covered after he jumped to Astana. It's the middle of the team that has weakened as a result.
"I think that's fair but our team was created so that young African talent could be developed," Aldag says. "Could we get more from our budget if we didn't care as much for African cycling? It's very likely, but that's never been our ambition. It's about creating value, and it's not just about winning. You need to win, you need to be competitive, because if Cavendish wins a stage in the Tour then you see peaks for Qhubeka and that's what we're committed to.
"Is the middle a little bit lost in the team? Yes, I think that's obvious. If our leaders are out with injury or sickness, then it is hard for us to keep winning, but they will come back. Once they're back we'll be back on track. We just can't lose our routine."
For Aldag and Ryder, it's about vision. Dimension Data cannot compete with the likes of Team Sky or some of the other superpower teams in the market, so their long-term strategy is focused on signing up young talent and developing those riders.
It's a slightly different approach to the one that saw them hire Cavendish - along with his lead-out - and Cummings at the start of the 2016 and 2015 seasons, respectively, but it requires patience. At the team service course, Aldag says that the term 'Project 2020' is often used.
"Doug created the team as an African team and he took them through the ranks, all the way to WorldTour. Now there's this African rider in Louis who we can really trust to do something. So, the question is about how you set things up around him. We need to give him the maximum support and let him grow into that role as a leader. You can support a rider like that in different ways. If you have a huge sponsor then you fire off pay-checks. That's really easy. That's what Lance Armstrong did at Postal, with [Roberto] Heras and [Floyd] Landis for example. Then we've seen Sky with their [Mikel] Landa situation, where the only guys who could attack Chris Froome were on his team. So, either you do that - but you need a 40 million Euro budget - or you look for experienced guys who can be road captains and sign them alongside young riders who can develop alongside Louis.
"So, if you take Scott Davis. In 2020 will he be able to step up for a potential TTT? Absolutely. And will he be able to get over the big climbs? Absolutely. Another example is Ben O'Connor. He's going to be key for us but we need to sign him early because if we had waited until 2020 then it would be a completely different pay-check. We have to go our own way, develop our own riders and talent. They might not be big names or competitive now but they will be in two years from now. We can't afford to just buy in structures."
Doug Ryder has one of the most challenging jobs of any WorldTour team manager
At the end of the season Ryder and Aldag will be faced with a number of important decisions. Cavendish and his lead-out entourage are out of contract, and while there are close ties between the rider and the management, and both parties believe in the team's clear ethos, a contract still needs to be provided and signed. Boasson Hagen and Cummings are also up for renewal, so the next few months, with the Giro and the Tour, will be vital.
To make matters more complex, there's also the UCI stalling over the WorldTour points structure of 2020, which leaves all teams - not just Dimension Data - with a level of uncertainty.
"We had a brilliant year with Cavendish in 2016. We had a rough 2017 and a rough start to 2018, but overall, he's been good with the team and he feels good in the team," says Aldag.
"We have lots of contracts ending and there's a lot of money bound up in that sprint group. It's up to Doug to have the decision on what to do in terms of strategy. The big next landmark is the Giro with Louis and then to get Mark back on track for California. It's the Giro and Tour that we will be measured against."
Although Dimension Data are in the midst of a difficult period, they do have the riders to turn it around. As Aldag says, the message to the riders is simple: stick together, look after each other, and the results will follow.